Miami Dolphins seek improvement on home field

The Dolphins approach their home opener trying to recapture the home-field advantage that so many of the franchise’s stars of the past — some of whom will be on hand Sunday — used to enjoy.

09/16/2012 12:01 AM

08/31/2013 7:52 PM

Few NFL franchises wrap themselves in the cloak of history like the Dolphins, from the bronzed Marino and Shula statues to their frolicking fight song.

They’ll drink from the legacy well yet again in Sunday’s home opener. Legends from decades gone by will hand out commemorative hats honoring the perfect season’s 40th anniversary.

But by living so much in the past, the Dolphins open up their present to unfavorable comparisons.

Here’s a pretty familiar one: Why can’t they win at home like they used to?

The Dolphins play host to the Raiders in their home opener Sunday, and even against a deeply flawed team, Las Vegas considers them underdogs.

Here’s part of the reason: Once unbeatable under the South Florida sun, the Dolphins have been downright hospitable as of late, losing 37 of 64 regular-season home games since 2004. By comparison, home teams have won 56percent of the time since the start of the 2011 season.

“What home-field advantage?” said Mercury Morris, the chatty former Dolphin who was part of the 1970s team that, during one remarkable stretch, won 27 in a row at home.

Added fellow alum Mark Duper, whose Dolphins teams won 72 percent of their home games: “The heat is very, very bad. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get cramped. But our team should not be the team that feels that way.”

Duper hits on the most confounding aspect of the Dolphins’ home woes: they can’t even win when the weather is the most advantageous. Miami has gone just 8-20 in September and October the past eight seasons.

Everybody has a theory on why the Dolphins have been so dreadful at home. Duper blames the climate-controlled workout bubble, which the team uses as a respite from the area’s extreme weather.

Morris cites the franchise’s drift in focus. In recent years, the perception — fair or not — is the Dolphins have been more concerned with getting A-listers on the Orange Carpet than getting in the end zone.

But those days are over. The team has ditched the VIP entrance. And you’ll no longer see celebrity owners shouting “Fins Up” on the big screen. Dolphins brass conducted a survey with core fans in the offseason, determined that most hated their forced attempt at buzz, and acted accordingly.

“I think at the center of everything we’re doing is football,” Dolphins CEO Mike Dee said. “That came through loud and clear with the research we did.”

Said Morris, when learning of the change: “It’s the beginning of wisdom.”

But here’s the deeper problem: Lately, that football product has been worse than bad. It has been irrelevant. In turn, fans have lost interest.

Television ratings for the opener were alarmingly low and Sunday’s game is only being shown because of a new NFL rule that allows the blackout to be lifted if the team sells 85 percent of its nonpremium seats.

Since receiver Davone Bess joined the team in 2008, the Dolphins have won just 14 times at home. This week, he acknowledged the fan base deserves more.

“This is a historic franchise,” Bess said. “Just the pride, the fans coming out, sitting in that heat, supporting us, we’ve got to [go all out], not only for ourselves, our organization, but for them too.”

Problem is, the Dolphins seem to be stuck in a perpetual rebuilding mode. They have been above .500 just once in the past six seasons. They have traded away two marquee players since coach Joe Philbin took over.

And although Ryan Tannehill might someday be the second coming of Dan Marino, the Dolphins for now would gladly take a modern-day version of the low-risk Jay Fiedler.

Many see this season as little more than an apprenticeship for Tannehill — whose 39.0 quarterback rating in Week 1 was the second-worst showing in the NFL. He’s just not one of them.

“I’m going out to win games,” Tannehill said. “You play football to win.

“You don’t play football to just get better.”

Duper, the star receiver now two decades retired, applauds the rookie’s moxie. He called it the statement of a winning quarterback. And although we now view the halcyon Marino era through rose-colored glasses, Duper remembers the lean years and the sometimes meager crowds.

When asked if the Dolphins owe it to their fans to win at home, Duper balked.

“The Dolphins owe it to themselves to win,” said Duper, who will be at Gate D on Sunday passing out caps. “The fans are going to come to games when we win, and they’re not going to come when we don’t.

“I think the Dolphins need to forget about everything else around them, and just focus on football.”

From Dee on down, that’s the plan.

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